BRANTFORD – The Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts is located right across from Harmony Square, in downtown Brantford. Freedom House Church used both venues to present their fifth annual Frosty Fest Winter Carnival, which was well attended despite the cold weather. But then again, its called Frosty Fest for a reason.
Saturday night, Bruce Cockburn thrilled a full house at the Sanderson with an amazing journey through decades of commercial hits, new songs and hard hitting social commentary on the environment and on Native Rights, which have been his calling card since bursting onto the music scene in the 1970’s.
Even with Mayor Chris Friel, MP Phil McColeman and MPP Dave Levac in the audience, Cockburn did not shy away from some of his hardest hitting political lyrics with songs like, “They Call it Democracy,” and “Stolen Land.”
Although solo, his masterful guitar work and personable manner fit well with the wonderful acoustics of the Sanderson Centre.
Pastors Brian Beattie and Dave “Captain Kindness” Carrol, along with promoter Phil Gillies collaborated to find not just any name act to headline the three-day event, but someone they could resonate with.
“As a church, Freedom House wants to be involved with all spheres of society,” says founding pastor Brian Beattie. “We were looking for someone with similar philosophical connections as us and Bruce was on top of our list.”
As the second part of our exclusive interview with Cockburn, we focused on Cockburn’s spiritual side and he was open and, as expected, painfully honest about it.
“The earliest I started thinking about it (spirituality) was in High School,” Cockburn told Two Row Times. “I started reading the Beat Generation stuff, went on the road and I started reading existentialist philosophers, because I thought it was cool.”
Through that, he was drawn towards the occult and spent some time studying Tarot. But none of that could satisfy his insatiable hunger for the truth.
It wasn’t until he had, what he believes to be, an encounter with Jesus Christ at the altar of a church, that his spiritual journey took a radical turn.
“My first wife wanted to get married in a church,” he recalls. “I thought, cool, because I was fascinated with the big gothic stone building. I didn’t have any particular attachment to the idea of the Christian church. But I liked the resonance of it.”
He recalls clearly what happened that day.
“There we were, standing at the altar during the ceremony,” he recalls. “My brother was standing there as my best man and right at about the point where we were about to exchange rings, I became aware that there was somebody else there at the altar with us. I couldn’t see him, but there was so clearly someone there that I might as well have seen him. It was the energy of a person standing there and I was quite taken aback actually. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I thought, hey, here we are standing at a Christian alter and there is somebody there. Hmm. It’s got to be Jesus.”
Cockburn could no longer deny that there was something – someone – bigger than himself, who really cared about him and the same things he cared about.
It wouldn’t be the only time he would feel ‘the presence,’ as he calls it.
“A few years later I had another encounter with that same presence,” he goes on to say. “At that point I thought, ‘this is the real deal.’ I guess I’m a Christian.”
“I started trying to find out what it meant to be a Christian, and because it loomed so large in my life, it also loomed large in my songs.”
One of his biggest hits, “Wonder Where the Lions Are” was written at around that time.
It wasn’t religion Cockburn was looking for. It was something much deeper than the rituals and the man-made political ‘religion’ known to the world today as Christianity. He was looking for the person of Christ himself – the source of the presence.
Now, even as a believer, he has not stopped his search and continues to delve deeper into his spiritual journey in search of more of ‘the presence.’
“I’m not sure I believe in the ‘historical’ Jesus,” he freely admits. “I believe in the presence that I felt. If you want to call it Jesus, OK, but I think it goes beyond the confines of Christian mythology. I am going to use that word and I know it’s very loaded and I wish I had a better word for it. I can’t say I believe in the mythology that gives Jesus a certain look, in a certain historical or cultural context and all of that. I think the entity I was confronted by in those situations would be bigger and actually transcend that picture of Jesus. I just want to have a direct line to that entity and not have to deal with all the cultural and historical baggage that too often goes with it.”
We asked Cockburn how he would try and reconcile the horrors of the residential schools in the name of Christianity, with the presence he recognizes as Jesus himself.
“The disconnect between what sometimes is presented as Christianity, like at the residential schools, is the word ‘love’,” he says. “I think that disconnect is cultural and is selfish. It’s human nature channeled through the cultural stuff that Europeans brought with them to North America.
“Human Nature is common to all Native people, Europeans, Asian people and everybody. We are all made up of the same stuff, but in a historical and cultural context, we are developed into different shapes.
“I don’t think the original Jesuits that came here were thinking, ‘if I harvest these souls for Christ it’s going to make it easier to get money out of them’. But that’s what happened. That’s what turned into the residential schools. It’s all just cultural BS. The idea that God comes in a special uniform and you gotta bow down before that special uniform is crap.”
We give kudos to artists like Cockburn and Neil Young who, as non-Natives, are willing to speak out, from their side of the Two Row Wampum, on issues that matter to everyone.